It's Not Really My Own Little World Anymore

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John Leonard

John Leonard
Location
Shoreline, Washington, US
Birthday
August 12
Title
I think
Bio
I suppose that I should give some sort of Bio - I'm a superannuated Boston transplant to the Seattle area who came out when the bottom fell out of the Telecom industry a few years back. Engineering just ain't what it used to be and it's unlikely it ever will be again. I'll get over it. I've lived here for five years and doubt that I'll ever get used to the west coast. That may not be a bad thing.

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NOVEMBER 29, 2008 6:29PM

The Barn

Rate: 20 Flag

Well, back in sodden, grey Seattle after a wonderful visit back home to sodden, grey (and last Saturday cold) New England. Could it be a sign of acclimatization to Seattle that I moan about the 20° F temperature in East Boston when we picked up the rental car? Lord, how delicate we become. On the upside, as Brother Arlo sang - it was a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat and we managed not to bother Officer Obie.

I made the trip to the family homestead in W. Dummerston, VT on Tuesday, it was pouring warm rain on top of a layer of slush and frozen ground, which made for a bit of fog. To fill you all in, my great-great-great grandfather Enos Leonard bought this farm in 1820, after living in nearby Dover, VT for awhile, and we’ve been there ever since (not much longer though, my aunts are selling it – a point they didn’t care to mention during my visit, but that’s a subject for another post). In 1899 my great-grandfather decided that the cows needed a new place to sleep and he needed a better place to work, so he built a new barn. My grandfather was 12 at the time, I’m sorry now that I never asked him what sort of barn was used before this one.

Barn - Nov. 2008 

            The “new” barn – Built ca 1899

The barn is of particular interest to me because it is a great example of post and beam construction and built on a dry stone foundation. The frame is completely visible, made of timbers of varying size and woods, mostly American Chestnut and White Pine, pinned with Black Locust pegs. It’s also of interest because it’s the place where my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father (during his childhood) went to work every day, and I do mean every day. Funny thing about a herd of cows, they don’t know about calendars and so to them every day is pretty much the same, they need to be fed and milked, only the details changing with the seasons. Those seasons came to an end in 1957, when my grandfather sold off his small herd of Holsteins because of his increasing age and modern regulation of dairies making the running of a herd of about a half-dozen milk cows a losing proposition economically.

The barn has since fallen into disuse and is suffering a bit as the dry foundation settles and the frame moves to accommodate the settling.

 Milking Parlor

Above is the milking parlor, such as it was in the days of pre-industrial dairies, the stanchions are the upright boards on the left of the photo, one of the boards could slide back and forth, effectively keeping the cow from backing up and wandering off. Before you get too concerned about the cow’s feelings, there was always fresh hay where she could lower her head and grab a mouthful from time-to-time, and the stanchions were not kept so tight as to actually contact the cow’s neck, just close enough to keep her horns from passing through.

I mentioned seasonal variation, most of the year the cows were kept out to pasture on the side of the mountain the farm is located on. My grandfather had 120 acres, most of it woodlot, with about 40 acres of hayfield and pasture.

Upper Flat - Oct 2004 

A bit of hayfield above, the cows were also allowed to go up into the woods to forage. Many people don’t realize it, but the domesticated cow, bos taurus, was originally a woodland animal and they still like a walk in the woods when they can get it. I’ll amble into an amusing (well at least it is 65 years after the fact) story regarding that. As a boy, it was my father’s job to walk the cattle to the proper pasturage for the day, and make sure all the gates were closed. Well one day he walked them to the right area, but they were able to get through an open gate to an area that had a lot of wild onions growing in it. A cow likes a varied diet as much as anyone else, so they grazed on the wild onions. Now, onions don’t hurt cows but according to my grandmother the dairy lost a few days milk production waiting for the onion taste to leave the milk. She said the only thing she could do with it was make chowder, as the milk was obviously unsalable. It’s funny now, but on a 1930s-1940s dairy farm, the humor escaped them.

Lower Barn 

In the winter, the cows stayed in lower part of the barn (above) and had access to a small barnyard, with a watering trough and some room to move around. There was an open floor area for the cows and a couple of stalls for what everyone referred to as “bob-cows”, or oxen. I’ll leave identifying the part of the bull that was bobbed as an exercise for the student. My grandfather had a tractor and a 1927 International dump truck, but the oxen were very useful for working in the woods. Besides, I think he just liked them. Oh, the moss on the wall is a relatively recent addition; back in the day the animals’ body heat was enough to keep the area dry.

Upper Barn Frame 

The upper part of the barn held the milking parlor and was used as storage for vehicles and machinery; it also had an internal silo for storing corn, all long-since gone. The advantage of the emptying of the barn is that the framing becomes more exposed and details are visible. The barn was built on the three-bay English model, still pretty popular in Northern New England, because it works well in a hilly area. The timbers used to make the frame all came from the farm itself, which is why pine and chestnut predominate. You can see a sample of the framing above, the beams are about 12”x12” and some of the cross beams are up to 40 feet long. The trees were hand-cut, as this was well before the age of the chain-saw, and the beams were then hewn out of logs that were cut to the proper length. The pegs were locust, which is very rot-resistant. In 1972 a small shed attached to the barn needed to be removed. My father and grandfather made the choice to disassemble the shed, rather than demolish it. This meant knocking out he pegs where possible and drilling were it wasn’t. The pegs we were able to knock out still smelled of fresh wood after more than 70 years, I imagine they still would. The cables you see in the photo above were added about 20 years ago to keep the frame from going too out-of-true as the building settled. They seem to have worked.

 Interior Siding

The barn is sided with chestnut boards, some up to 18” wide. Before the blight, chestnut and Sugar Maple were the common hardwoods in this part of New England. Sugar Maple was, and still is, worth far more standing than as lumber, so chestnut was the choice for siding. It’s hard and has good weather resistant qualities. I’ve included two photos of the siding. The first, above, is an interior shot which shows how the siding looked when it was installed. It's dulled and yellowed a bit by age and oxidation, but still smooth. This siding has stayed dry and out of the sun, so it doesn’t display one of the more interesting effects of weather on siding – erosion.

Barn Siding 1 

The last 109 years of weather have been a bit rough on the exterior surface of those nice, clean boards and have changed their color. The soft summer rings have been eroded away, almost an eighth of an inch, while the hard winter rings have resisted the erosion, leaving a surface that could be used to grate carrots – or the fingers of careless little children – that last I’ll personally vouch for.

 Barn Siding Close-up

A little closer look at the erosion of the wood, just for Susan Mitchell, who asked for a close-up.

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Wow, John! In some places that wood would be worth big money! How sad, that after all those years the farm will leave your family.
Thanks for posting this! Great barn, it makes me sad to see it leave the family after so many years - though if I were a member of said family, I wouldn't volunteer to take over all the work needed to maintain said farm. And I'll add "bob-cows" to my rustic vocabulary.
Beautifully written post, full of concrete and loving detail, with excellent illustrations. I loved reading it, not only for the building description but also for how you skillfully fold in your family history. Bravo!

rated.
John, great photo essay on the family barn! It is sad to think that your aunts are selling this off after it's been a part of the family for so long. The large cowbarn that my grandparents had bears some similarity to the one in your family, but was built around the time of the Civil War and was not in the family for generations like your barn has been. It's a shame that the chestnut trees died off as you mentioned. I remember talking with my grandfather about that years ago. It was an excellent wood and so long-lasting. I believe we still have remnants of old chestnut stumps in our woods here going back decades.
John, that's a beautiful barn. Craftsmanship like that hardly exists anymore except for maybe with some Amish communities. Back then, they built to last.

Highly Rated with Kudos
Greg
In my aunts' defense, I will add that they are in their mid-80s and no doubt do not have the income for both the taxes and the maintenance. And the farm is certainly in need of both.

HL - you're absolutely right about the siding. There's a company over in NH that takes siding of this sort and turns it into high-end flooring. I've seen it at home shows here in Seattle. On the one hand, it's beautiful wood in a pace where it can be appreciated, on the other it's another little piece of history biting the dust.

There are still a lot of chestnuts around in New England, but as they get to be of a certain size (about 3" in diameter) they die. Some manage to put out a crop or two of nuts. The American Chestnut Foundation is working to identify and preserve those trees that seem to be blight resistant, with the idea of perhaps bringing them back.
I remember being shown wood slices that showed the entire history and having a biology teacher say each ring was a year. I did not know the rings were seasonal or am I just not understanding it correctly? You probably like Seattle too much to leave, but it is a shame someone in the family does not want the farm and it's history.
Hi Koakuma, trees make down winter and summer rings. The summer is a period of faster growth and the wood created at that time is lighter in color and less dense that the rings created by the slower growth of winter - realize that I'm grossly generalizing here.

Usually when talking about counting rings, it's the darker winter rings that we count.

I would leave Seattle, or even Boston, to live on that farm, but I can't afford to either buy or maintain it and then there's this little problem of work not exactly growing on the trees in that neck of the woods.
Ahhh. I miss New England. Great post. Thanks so much.
Thank you for a wonderful and evocative post. (Pun intended.) Your description of the different boards and woods, the details about the construction--I can just imagine the pace of life, the enormous effort required to chop down a tree and turn its wood into those beams, hoist them into place. But damn, it was built to last and last and last.

And last it has. Even though it has fallen into disuse, as you note, it is still so clearly strong and solid. And beautiful. I thank you so much for bringing me the photo of the ridged boards. They are as pleasing to see as I thought they would be.

I'm so glad you got to be there again. I'm sorry that piece of your family's history will pass into other hands, but I am not surprised. It is a way of life that is inevitably fading. At least you have some wonderful photos to remember it by.
That's a great story for a rainy Sunday morning (here in NC), John.

Checking Google, I find that W. Dummerston is not too far from Brattleboro, where my wife and I spent many a pleasant day when we were living in Amherst. New England, to me, feels denser than many places in the U.S., despite all the greenery and open fields--you can get to somewhere different in just a couple of hours.

I'm also reminded of a friend who lived in an old Victorian in Amherst, which he had renovated. One room was given over entirely to a library, with shelves lining all the walls. It turned out that the interior trim in the house, including all those shelves, was chestnut. It's a beautiful wood, and so scarce (or so I understand) that it's definitely worth preserving when possible.

Thanks for bringing back a few personal memories. (Oh, and I was happy to read that the barn had a dry stone foundation. Perfect.)
Coming back to take another peek. My significant other, Irvin, also loves wood in all its forms and stages and shapes and so on. I showed him these photos and he loved them. Not surprisingly, he particularly liked the last two photos. Thanks again for indulging my love of old barn planks ;)
This was a fascinating photo-essay. Nice work, John,
Susan, glad you liked the photos, that was the spur of the whole post. And you've hit the nail on the head, nothing lasts forever, sooner or later the real world intrudes. There are times I wish it would mind its own business, though.

Rob, W. Dummerston is the western village of the town of Dummerston and you're right, it's the next town north of Brattleboro along either the West or Connecticut rivers. When I was a little kid visiting my grandparents, I always thought of Brattleboro as the big city.

UK - I trust that you outran them and are no worse for the experience. These were Holstein oxen that were quite a bit larger that the female of the breed.

Lea and David, thanks for the kind words.
It's all relative, I guess; my wife grew up in Essex Junction and thought of Burlington as the big city, when she was a kid.
An awesome display of good old New England farm architecture. I can understand your aunt's need to sell, but it is a damn shame that yet another family farm will be going by the wayside. You are most correct, though, about work not exactly growing on trees here - at least, not the kind of work with which one can support a family in a decent manner.
Welcome back, John. Sorry that we couldn't accommodate your visit with better weather, but you know what they say about weather here. :-D

Thumbed. I have to say it again, the photos are fabulous. Thanks so much for posting this!
Bill, after more than 40 years in New England, I know that ot call the weather "variable" is an understatement. This time of year, it mostly varies from bad to worse. That said, it can also vary from beautiful to orgasmic in May and June.

The one saving grace is that my grandfather signed over development rights to the town years ago (the village's water supply is on the hill the farm occupies), so it won't get carved up unless the new owner wants to cough up a lot of back taxes. and even so, may still not be able to do it.
Beautiful photos and satisfying family history. My sister saved a large beam from a family barn in northern Indiana that she's hoping to have shaped into a mantle and installed in the home she just purchased cater-corner to my parents. Would you enjoy having some of the non structural wood to use in some imaginative manner in your own Seattle home?

If no one in the family can afford to purchase the land, would the aunts like to consider giving the acreage and structures to the Nature Conservatory? They could also have a conservation easement attached to the property.

I've stayed on B&B dairy farms and spoken to many folks who are running a family business of some type that they know will come to an end once they are gone. Some find it heartbreaking and others are philosophical. I find it so sad and depressing, but maybe some wonderfully unexpected good will come from this. There are people with the money to sustain such a place who would cherish every board--with luck it will come to one of them, if not able to be used in one of the ways mentioned above.

Paws up.
Hi DW, while your suggestions are certainly good, the conservation easement is already in place and unfortunately my aunts aren't in a position to walk away from the money that the sale would bring.
First of all, east coast cold is colder than west coast cold. I'm not sure why but it's so. I went to my cousin's wedding in Baltimore a few November's ago and froze my patootie. Then went to Driggs, Idaho where the temp was thirty degrees colder (something like 4) and it wasn't bad.

Second, the barn. I'm in love. The history, the dairy, the construction, the whole process. We know about farming every day but don't work as hard as dairy farmers.

Oh, and a funny thing. You can't give chickens onions or garlic either and even though they like it. Ruins the taste of the eggs.

Thumbed.
Hi Lauren, I know that dairy farming is hard work, that's why I'm just as happy not to be one.

Now as regards cold, as I understand it the western parts of North America are dry because the west slope of the Rockies essentially wrings the water out of the water coming off the Pacific. The long trip from the Gulf or over the Appalachians does the same thing for air coming from the Atlantic by giving the rain a chance to fall. I assure you that here in western Washington we know where that water winds up.

I assume it's a cute patootie, don't freeze it off.
Barn sorrow... A dear accounting of a lovely structure. I've just finished moving an old building to Chester from the ancestral farm. We lost the land and stone house but were able to keep the sugarhouse for posterity. Regardless of her new home, your post is a fine and fitting tribute.
perfectly beautiful. I wouldn't know how to maintain it, but I would love to live on a farm.
Hyblaean, the barn maintenance is actually pretty simple, just time consuming. The fact that it's not built too tight allows air to circulate, which helps keep the structure dry and prevents rot. It could use some new floor boards, though.

Maintaining the house, on the other hand is quite another story.
Your barn thanks you for breathing life and dignity back into it, even as it stands on weaker legs. Rated.
John, I really enjoyed this. Brought back memories of my grandparents' barn. It was built in the early 1900s, so not as old, but there are parts of it held together with wood pegs, and of course the stanchions and stalls are pretty much identical. I remember watching my grandfather milk cows and squirting milk at the barn cats that lined up to wait for it. :)

Ours was also two-levels, but not on much of a slope. The main floor was stalls, stanchions, tack, etc. The upstairs was hayloft and some storage of rarely-needed tools. There is nothing like swinging off a rope into a pile of hay on a warm early-summer day.

The barn is included in the section of the farm that my cousin and her husband bought. It's not restored yet but is on the agenda. I'm really glad it will be preserved, those old barns are really something.

I don't know how it is in New England, but where I grew up, there's a very traditional color scheme: The barns are red with white trim; the houses are white with red trim. Only ever need to buy 2 colors of paint. :D

That old wood is really beautiful. I just want to run my hands (carefully!) across the grain.